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2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Southeast Division

2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Southeast Division

With the regular season set to tip off on Oct.18, let’s take a look at where each team in the Southeast Division stands. We’ll break down what to like, what to be concerned about, a lineup to watch and a reasonable range for them to finish in the standings. (If you've missed them, read our season previews for the Atlantic DivisionNorthwest Division, Central Division and Pacific Division.)

And for deeper thoughts on the Southeast Division, you can listen to the latest episode of The Dunker Spot.

Atlanta Hawks

WHAT TO LIKE: STAR BACKCOURT

Aside from Steph Curry, is there a point guard (not you, Luka) you'd rather build an offense around than Trae Young?

His blend of pull-up shooting, intermediate scoring, foul-drawing and playmaking is virtually unheard of. He became the first player since Nate "Tiny" Archibald to lead the NBA in total points and assists in the same season. You don't really stop Young more than you hope his teammates mess up when he doesn't have the ball.

And that's what makes the trade for Dejounte Murray so exciting.

Young doesn't have to be the offense anymore; he can just be the leader of it. Murray can also shoulder a heavy offensive burden thanks to his playmaking, downhill guile and budding pull-up chops — inside the arc, anyway.

In Murray, the Hawks finally have a second player who can consistently get two feet in the paint. That should open up catch-and-shoot opportunities for Young, a rarity over the past couple of seasons. 

OTHER LIKES

- He can't keep himself out of trade rumors, but John Collins is very good at basketball. He's one of the most dynamic screening partners in the league — a violent above-the-rim threat and a dude who has drained over 40% of his above-the-break threes in two of the past three seasons.

- Big, big fan of Onyeka Okongwu. Quietly, he and Young torched teams in ball screens; the Hawks generated over 1.10 points per possession (PPP) on trips featuring a Young-Okongwu PnR, the seventh-best mark among 107 duos with at least 300 picks. Add in his ability to defend in space, and it shouldn't be a surprise that I'm all in.

- I am here for Jalen Johnson minutes at the 4. Don't rob me of this, Nate!

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: SPACING & LINEUP BALANCE

The Hawks have done their best to surround Young with the kind of defensive talent he needs. A stout rim protector in Clint Capela, a power-wing defender in De'Andre Hunter, a guard-hounding menace in Murray. The problem is that defenses don't treat any of them as real shooting threats. They're in a weird spot where it feels like they have two-way talent, but not enough 3-and-D pieces. 

Finding the combinations that'll help unlock their star guards without bleeding points will be Nate McMillan's toughest challenge.

OTHER CONCERNS

- It didn't seem like much of an issue during the preseason, but it's worth keeping an eye on the Young-Murray dynamic. Where Murray is spaced when he doesn't have the ball — and how he counters teams gapping him — will drive a good bit of the Hawks' half-court success against good defenses.

- Is this the year that Collins can comfortably hold down the 5? He's made strides every season, but the Hawks are still leaky — and an overall minus — when he's the only big on the floor.

- On a similar note, is this the year that Okongwu is fully ready to anchor lineups at the 5? I'm not sure yet. It would certainly be helpful if he is; that would mitigate some of my "what-if-Capela-goes-down-again" concerns.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Young-Murray-Bogdanovic-Hunter-Collins

This could end up being the closing group if Collins takes another step defensively. In theory, the Hawks can be in spread pick-and-roll heaven with Collins at the 5. Young or Murray should feast in that setup, and even Bogdan Bogdanovic could get busy. 

BEST CASE: No. 4 Seed

This is a talented group, headlined by an All-NBA-caliber guard and a ball-hawking All-Star in his own right. With good health from Capela and Hunter, there's room for the defense to get to average this year. With Young being an offense onto himself, that formula could be enough for the Hawks to rack up regular-season wins.

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

Injury woes aside, there are enough spacing and defensive concerns for the Hawks to fall right back into the 7-10 range. Add in the injury woes, and a top-six finish doesn't seem likely.

Charlotte Hornets

WHAT TO LIKE: LAMELO BALL & ERIC COLLINS

There are maybe five players who are more electric, more exciting than LaMelo Ball. He's an inventive passer, willing to throw 45-foot lobs, 80-foot underhanded scoops, and no-look darts to cutters or waiting shooters. Oh, and he'll pull-up from 30 on you and do so with a smile.

Frankly, there isn't a more energetic announcer than Eric Collins. When there's a thunderous dunk or gives-them-the-lead triple, Collins punctuates the moment with child-like splendor.

Together, they pretty much break the joy meter whenever something cool occurs. We need more joy in this sport, and I'm glad we have those two. It's a match made in heaven, TV volume permitting.

OTHER LIKES

- PJ Washington is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. I was shocked when his name popped up in trade rumors last season. He's a skilled 4 with shooting chops, ball skills and enough of a post game to punish smaller defenders when he gets them. Add in a healthy dose of switchability, and you have a pretty fun player.

- Quick hat tip to Cody Martin for securing a bag this offseason (four years, $32 million). He emerged as the Hornets' best perimeter defender, knocked down shots at a solid clip (38.4% from three) and kept the chains moving as a drive-and-kick piece.

- Cheers to another year of Terry Rozier shot-making! He's probably been overburdened as the shot-maker in the half-court for Charlotte, but he's on one of the best shooting runs you haven't heard of. A 38.8% clip from deep on 7.7 attempts — a blistering 42.1% on spot-ups — over the last three seasons is nothing to sneeze at.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: THE DEFENSE

I've said it over the past few seasons with Royce O'Neale in Utah, and I'll offer a similar sentiment here.

Martin is a good wing defender. But your team has a problem if he's your best wing defender. 

Zooming out, I struggle with the personnel. Mason Plumlee is mobile and positionally sound, which should give Charlotte a level of scheme versatility. It's just hard to trust the secondary rim protection behind him if the Hornets ramp things up, and it's really difficult to trust the screen navigation in front of him if they put him in a drop — and that's in addition to Plumlee not being feared at the rim.

The Hornets were awful defensively under James Borrego last season, but that wasn't from a lack of effort. We saw drop, saw the bigs at the level, saw switching, saw some trapping (hi, late-season Hawks game) and, boy, did they run a ton of zone. None of it worked well or for very long. 

OTHER CONCERNS

- First, I hope Ball gets well soon. Beyond that, he has to take a step as a driver and finisher this year. Whether it's becoming more comfortable seeking contact and getting to the line, doing a better job of finishing through contact or cleaning up his footwork to become a more reliable pull-up or floater threat — something has to pop for him.

- While we're on the health kick, how many games will we see from Gordon Hayward? Can we get 50?

- I'm not a huge fan of the Hornets' center room behind Plumlee. I like what Mark Williams is projected to bring, but the non-dunk finishing seems so far away from him being an effective roll threat right now. Nick Richards is fine, I suppose; it would just be nice if the Hornets had a more reliable vet. 

LINEUP TO WATCH: Ball-Oubre-Martin-Hayward-Washington

This group only played eight minutes together last season, but I'm curious to see it with a larger sample.

There's plenty of spacing to work with offensively, which should open up some spread pick-and-roll opportunities. Switching would be the calling card because of the collective size and length; honestly, any lineup in which you can simplify the defensive scheme and breathe easy is a bonus. 

BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament

Steve Clifford teams tend to get a boost in year one. The transition defense gets better, there are fewer turnovers and the defensive-rebound rate goes up. If the Hornets are simply a below-average defense instead of a dreadful one, the offense should be good enough to get them in the play-in again.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the East

Another unhealthy year from Hayward would make me feel uncomfortable with the Hornets' half-court offense, particularly late. And as much as I like the Clifford hire, the defensive personnel simply isn't good overall. With Ball missing the beginning of the year with an ankle roll, a slow start wouldn't be surprising.

And honestly, how upset would Hornet fans be if they find themselves in the running for Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson or one of the Thompson twins? It's hard to call this a "worst" case within that context.

Miami Heat

WHAT TO LIKE: DEFENSIVE PERSONNEL

Whew, buddy, does this team fly around.

Led by Bam Adebayo, the Heat are one of the stingiest, switchiest teams in basketball. They erase gaps immediately, but add to the hardship of offenses by also shrinking the floor. They pinch in early, stunt from everywhere — even the strong side corner, generally viewed as a no-no — and dare you to beat them.

It helps that they have the athleticism and collective IQ to pull this off. Bam Adebayo can guard just about anyone. Jimmy Butler is a tremendous wing defender, and doubles as one of the most lethal roamers off the ball.

Kyle Lowry has comfort defending — and taking charges from — players much larger than him. Caleb Martin can defend either wing spot, and got considerable reps against Trae Young in last year's postseason. Victor Oladipo can fly around when upright.

The list goes on and on.

OTHER LIKES

- Adebayo took threes in the preseason, which is objectively cool. Beyond that, he was more intentional about looking for his own shot, period. Maybe this is the year things click for him on that front.

- Sign me up for Tyler Herro as a starter. Slotting into more of an off-ball, attack-the-bent-defense role should lead to a boost in efficiency. Being surrounded by this much defensive talent should also make life easier on him.

- Erik Spoelstra. He's the best coach in basketball.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: BUTLER-ADEBAYO TWO-MAN GAME

Remember the 300 picks stat from the Hawks section? The Butler-Adebayo two-man game ranked 96th among those 107 duos, with the Heat barely mustering 0.9 PPP on trips featuring a Butler-Adebayo pick-and-roll. Handoffs weren't much better (0.92 PPP).

Because Butler isn't a proven shooter — with respect to his recent postseason exploits — teams are comfortable ducking under screens and daring him to pull up. And because Adebayo hasn't been able to consistently punish wings, there's also a comfort to switch those actions when necessary. 

The "put-a-big-on-Butler" gambit doesn't scare teams either; we've seen the Bucks and Sixers try it over the past two seasons.

Whether it's shooting growth from Butler, Adebayo taking a step as a creator or getting scheme help by emptying the corner or running some sort of decoy action to get the defense moving, something has to open up for this pairing. 

OTHER CONCERNS

- Going from PJ Tucker to Caleb Martin may not be a big deal in the grand scheme, but the Heat will probably miss Tucker's ability to take on bulkier matchups. Martin ain't hanging at the 5, and I do wonder what kind of hit the Heat will take from a rebounding perspective.

- As much as the 4 has been discussed for the Heat, it's probably worth wondering what the backup center situation will look like. If the end of last season and the preseason is any indication, Dewayne Dedmon might not be up for the job. Omer Yurtseven gave the Heat solid minutes last season, but there are serious defensive questions for him to answer. Nikola Jovic isn't physically ready for the job yet, though he looks like he'll be good down the line.

- Staggering should help mitigate some of the concern, but Herro entering the starting lineup does mean there will be more pressure on Victor Oladipo and Gabe Vincent to carry the bench.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Lowry-Herro-Strus-Butler-Adebayo

Because of injuries and off-court absences, we didn't see much of this group together last season. A 22-minute sample is almost criminal, but the intrigue is there because they won those minutes by 34 points. 

There's almost no way that level of dominance holds over a larger sample, but it's easy to see why that lineup can work. Plenty of spacing around Butler and Adebayo; plenty of guard creation from Lowry and Herro. Enough switchability between the Lowry-Strus-Butler-Adebayo quartet to shield Herro in a sense.

I want to see more of this group.

BEST CASE: No. 1 Seed

The Heat snagged the top seed despite Butler, Adebayo and Lowry missing a combined 70 games last season. I can't recall the last time a team led their conference in wins without any of their top three players appearing in at least 65 games — or roughly 80% of their games, accounting for lockout or otherwise shortened seasons.

Better health from Adebayo, Butler and Lowry should give the Heat an even higher floor. 

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

I don't think the Heat are in danger of missing the playoffs unless absolute catastrophe happens. I do think the strength of the conference, combined with more regular-season maintenance for Butler (or Lowry for that matter) could lead to a slip in the standings.

Orlando Magic

WHAT TO LIKE: SKILLED SIZE

I'll admit to my bias here: show me a team with multiple 6-foot-7-or-taller dudes who can do stuff with the ball and I'll swoon.

There isn't a thing Franz Wagner can't do on the offensive end; he was, at worst, a top-four rookie last season. Newbie Paolo Banchero is known for his (tough) bucket-getting, but he doubles as one of the best passers in this draft class. 

Wendell Carter Jr. can operate as a post or elbow hub, has enough on-ball juice to get downhill and has finally taken the training wheels off as a willing jump shooter. Jonathan Isaac. Mo Bamba shot 38.1% from three on healthy volume. I'll never stop believing in Bol Bol.

OTHER LIKES

- There are concerns about their offensive impact (more on that shortly), but how many teams can field a backcourt duo better than Markelle Fultz and Jalen Suggs defensively? Five? Is it even that many?

- I'm kinda here for the Magic's 3-2 zone. If you have that kind of length, why not deploy it and muck up any of the pretty sets that opposing offenses want to run?

- For a team that will need as much shooting as possible, I really think Caleb Houstan will be good for them. I liked what I saw from him during Summer League. 

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: POINT GUARD ROOM

Cole Anthony grew as a player on both ends last year. He's an underrated rebounder at his position and a budding playmaker. But so much of his game is driven by his pull-up; it gives me Devonte' Graham vibes in that sense.

Fultz is a tremendous playmaker, crafty finisher and sturdy defender at the point of attack. Teams simply don't care about his jumper, which is a massive problem for a lead guard and an even bigger one for this particular Magic team.

Suggs was simply not a productive offensive player last season — not a death sentence at all, but defenses will be giving him Fultz-like prove-it treatment both on and off the ball.

I don't think any of these players are bad, but there's a glaring something to pick at with all of them. 

OTHER CONCERNS

- The good news is the Magic have multiple 6-foot-7-or-taller players who can make stuff happen. The bad news is because they're so like-sized, teams will probably feel comfortable switching a lot of the actions they're involved in. We'll see how well they're able to navigate that when it pops up.

- It's odd for a team with this kind of size to struggle with rebounding like they did last season; finishing 23rd in rebound rate feels underwhelming. Their decision to punt on offensive rebounding factors into that number the most — they were 27th in offensive rebound rate and eighth in defensive rebound rate — but I do worry about this unit when Carter Jr. is off the floor.

- With the way the roster has been built, the Magic need the off-ball goodness from Terrence Ross and Gary Harris to grease the wheels offensively. Harris being out with a torn meniscus puts even more pressure on Ross to produce. 

LINEUP TO WATCH: Anthony-Wagner-Banchero-Carter Jr.-Bamba

The Anthony-Wagner-Carter Jr.-Bamba quartet was essentially neutral in 751 minutes last season, an impressive feat considering the team's overall net rating (minus-8.1, 28th) and the fact that the Magic only shot 34.7% from three in those minutes. Adding Banchero gives them a fulcrum to lean on, someone who should help the shot quality of the other four. 

Also, Wagner-Banchero-Carter Jr.-Bamba is just a massive group to surround Anthony with.

BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament

There is so much length and skilled size on the roster. Even if you don't believe in post-All-Star numbers — pssst, they were seventh in defense after the break last year — there's potential for this to be a solid unit. If you get Year 2 jumps from Suggs and Wagner and a Rookie-of-the-Year campaign from Banchero, I honestly wouldn't be shocked by them nabbing 10th.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the East

There's a real possibility that teams look at the Magic and say, "Hey, we'll just switch everything and live with tough shots." Advantage creation and spacing could once again be season-dooming issues for a team that hasn't been an average offense since the Obama administration. The first one.

Similar to the Hornets, finishing at the bottom wouldn't be a bad thing considering what this year's draft class projects to be.

Washington Wizards

WHAT TO LIKE: HEALTHY BRADLEY BEAL

We only got 40 games of the Bradley Beal experience last season, and he wasn't healthy for all of those. It's also telling that a bad-for-him Beal year was essentially 23-5-7 in a tough offensive context.

Beal's evolution as a player isn't talked about enough, honestly. Known as a lethal (movement) shooter entering his draft year, he's turned himself into a solid playmaker and one of the most unique drivers in basketball. He's a well-rounded weapon offensively.

(With some of the new additions from the summer, hopefully we get to see more off-ball usage from him.)

OTHER LIKES

- I like the Monte Morris addition for this team. He's gradually become a more willing shooter, and he simply doesn't make mistakes with the ball. His partnership with Beal should be a fruitful one.

- Sign me up for more Deni Avdija. He has to prove it with the shot, but I don't have many questions about the rest of his game. He was quietly one of the best wing defenders in the league last year, and is a pretty smart ball-mover. Here's hoping he has more opportunities to attack tilted defenses this year.

- Daniel Gafford! He's good! Give him plenty of burn!

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: LINEUP BALANCE

The good news is the Wizards can field a rotation with 10, maybe 11 solid NBA players. The bad news is the Wizards have to sort through a rotation of 10, maybe 11 solid NBA players — and some of them have overlapping skill-sets.

This is before getting into their most recent first-round picks — Corey Kispert (2021) and Johnny Davis (2022). I don't know how you find time for those guys to grow. 

I'm just curious to see how head coach Wes Unseld Jr. doles out the minutes.

OTHER CONCERNS

- It's boring, but banking on Beal and Kristaps Porzingis to be reasonably healthy (65+ games) doesn't feel like the safest bet. I'd love to see it though.

- I wonder how much scheme versatility this group has defensively. Porzingis kinda boxes you in because of his limitations in space. 

- Is Beal the only player on the roster that teams have to worry about playing drop against? How often will non-Beal players get defenses in rotation?

LINEUP TO WATCH: Morris-Beal-Avdija-Kuzma-Porzingis

To get the most out of Porzingis, you'll need him at the 5. That'll open up pick-and-pop opportunities for him against most teams, and allow him to play in a drop more comfortably.

Flanking him with Avdija and Kuzma defensively should bode well. The Beal-Porzingis two-man game should have plenty of space to work with. This may also be the best lineup for Avdija to do his gap-filling.

BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament

Beal is one of the NBA's best guards, and Porzingis has shown he can be a two-way force when healthy. It shouldn't be difficult to build a competent offense around those two. If the defense can take a step, nabbing the ninth or 10th seed should definitely be in play.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the East

More health issues for Porzingis and Beal could tank the Wizards' playoff/play-in hopes pretty quickly. There's also the possibility that they aren't able to find continuity with the pieces they have, leading to an underwhelming product on both ends of the floor.

Check out our season previews for the Atlantic DivisionNorthwest Division, Central Division and Pacific Division.

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